The COVID-19 pandemic increased burnout among doctors and risks reversing recent improvements in their workloads and wellbeing, the General Medical Council (GMC) has warned in a report published today.
The regulator’s annual national training survey was completed by more than 63,000 UK doctors, all of them either trainees or trainers. Responses to questions about burnout were the worst since they were introduced in 2018.
A third of trainees said they felt burnt out to a high or very high degree because of their work, compared to around a quarter in previous years. Three in five said they always or often felt worn out at the end of a working day, and 44% felt their work was ‘emotionally exhausting’ to a high or very high degree.
Trainees’ responses to seven wellbeing-related questions, across all medical specialties, saw a swing towards negative answers compared to previous years.
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Charlie Massey, Chief Executive of the GMC, said:
"It is not surprising that burnout has worsened during the pandemic, but we cannot expect doctors to continue to operate at this level of intensity. As health services emerge from COVID pressures will remain, but we must not risk reversing the gains that have been made in recent years.
"The danger is that, unless action is taken, workloads and wellbeing will continue to suffer, and future burnout rates could get even worse. As we move on from the pandemic, it is vital that doctors’ training and wellbeing needs are central to service recovery plans. This year’s results should be a blip caused by COVID, not part of a new normal."
Although trainees and trainers reported worsening levels of burnout, the quality of training remained high, and similar to pre-pandemic levels. Around three-quarters (76%) of trainees rated the quality of teaching as ‘good’ or ‘very good’, and almost nine in ten (88%) described their clinical supervision as ‘good’ or ‘very good’.
Eight in ten (81%) of trainees said they were on course to meet their curriculum outcomes for the year, although one in ten – a substantial number in real terms – were concerned about progressing through their training.
Mr Massey added:
"The pandemic has caused inevitable disruption, and some training opportunities have been lost. But, thanks to the efforts and hard work of trainers and trainees, where training has been possible the quality has been sustained.
"We know many trainees remain concerned about their training progression, so we are working hard to ensure training is flexible, fair, and helps prepare doctors to meet current and future patient needs."
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'Large increase in GP trainers suffering from burnout – incredibly concerning'
Responding to the survey findings, Dr Richard Vautrey, BMA GP committee chair, said:
“It’s positive to see that trainees continue to rate their training and supervision highly, but what is incredibly concerning is the large increase in GP trainers suffering from burnout, with the same group most likely to say their work was emotionally exhausting and others frustrated that there are simply not enough hours in the day to give training the attention it deserves.
“While this is testament to the dedication and importance GP trainers place in ensuring the next generation of GPs get the supervision and mentoring they need, it also underlines the intense and often unsustainable pressure being placed on individual doctors as they try to balance caring for patients, assisting colleagues and looking after their own wellbeing – often while managing the day-to-day demands of running a practice too.
“A renewed effort to protect staff’s wellbeing, while providing practices with the resources they need to meet the growing list of demands they face, will be key as we face the next daunting stage of the pandemic and recovery.”
'Wellbeing of doctors must be prioritised'
This sentiment was echoed by Dr Sarah Hallett, BMA junior doctors committee chair:
“Any junior doctor reading these findings will sadly not be surprised about the high levels of burnout among the profession, though it still makes for sobering reading.
“Junior doctors have helped keep the NHS on its feet throughout the pandemic, working gruelling hours in often unfamiliar settings, and have seen death and serious illness on a scale that even the most experienced doctors had never seen before.
“During this time, while the NHS rallied to meet the urgent task at hand, training often regrettably had to take a back seat. So while it is good to see a high proportion of trainees rating the quality of their training and clinical supervision highly – a testament to our senior colleagues – and on course to meet their curriculum outcomes, it is very worrying that one in 10 junior doctors were concerned about progressing through their training. ....
“We are the consultants, GPs and specialists of the future, and the highly-skilled clinicians that the NHS will rely on for decades to come. As the health service moves to the next phase of managing the pandemic and working through the huge backlog of care, the wellbeing and training needs of junior doctors must be prioritised..."